Sermon transcript, 8 March 2015
Don’t quit – press on by Fr. Dana
Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, Romans 7:13-25, John 2:13-25
Last week we talked about Satan’s war of attrition: he tries to wear down our resistance, faith and good walks. He tries to do this in many ways: through relational conflicts, the pressure of life, and sin… But this was a sub-topic under the general heading: “Satan cannot win.” He’s already defeated; all he can do is convince us to quit – and sometimes he’s successful.
But there are other ways in which Satan tries to convince us to quit. One of them is discouragement: he tries to make the goal of our high calling look so far away and so high and so unattainable that we are convinced that we can’t reach it; and if we can’t reach it, why even try? In today’s Old Testament lesson we heard the complete reading of the Ten Commandments, including some of God’s commentary on them. That’s only a piece of what he has for us, and when you put that together with all the corollaries, statutes, explanations, and everything else you find in the Bible, it sometimes seem to be too much, too far beyond our reach.
The attributes of God’s proclamations
The Psalm today has some things to say about God’s proclamations:
- “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul” (Psalm 19:7a). The Law of the Lord is His design upon which all creation operates, like the Law of gravity. If I hold something up and I drop it, it falls. The Law that God gives us is not “Thou shallt not have any fun”, but, “This is the way the world is designed to operate; and if you want to be all that I have called you to be, you need to operate by these Laws.” That Law converts the soul. The Law is a mirror (see James 1:23-25): we look at the Law and look at ourselves and say, “Ugh! That doesn’t look very pretty!” Galatians 3:24 says that the Law doesn’t save us, but it brings us to Christ: it’s our teacher. It says, “Here’s the right answer; now you try. No, that‘s the wrong answer – here’s the right answer.” It is a perfect tutor; if we follow it, we will learn from it. And we can learn from our mistakes when we don’t follow it.
- “The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7b). If you are called into court to give a testimony, you are declaring what you have seen to be true. You are saying, “I was there; I saw this; this is what happened; and I swear it’s true”. Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not a man, that He should lie”: He will not tell you something that is not true, to get you to do something. If God says it, it’s true. If we’ll simply accept His testimony, rather than trying to re-interpret it so that we don’t have to, we will gain wisdom.
- “The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart (Psalm 19:8a). Statutes are the written enactment of a law: a governmental authority passes a law, and then they write statutes that define how we will enforce that law. The statutes of the Lord are the written enactments of His Law: they tell us how to live in His love.
- “The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:8b). If I go to my boss and he says, “I want you to do this”, I do it – as long as it is not immoral; but my Bishop won’t do that, so I don’t have to worry about that. A commandment is an instruction to do something, a direct order: nothing hidden, very straight, no hidden agenda, just “do it”. Those commandments help us understand how the world works.
- “The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever” (Psalm 19:9a). “Fear” has a lot of definitions. Some people truly are afraid of the Lord: they don’t want to see Him, hear Him, touch Him or think about Him, because it is too terrifying; and that’s really because they don’t know Him that well. But there is a healthy fear of the Lord: the Lord holds us in the palm of His hand, He has our eternal destiny in His hand; and so to have a healthy respect for Him and His authority and His power is a good thing. It’s not dirtied by Him being selfish: He’s not holding you by the neck and saying, “If you don’t do that”, and squeezing… He holds our temporal and eternal future; and that would be a scary thing if it were not for the fact that his desire for us is purely for our good. Read II Peter 3:9: that’s His heart. If not everybody comes to repentance, it isn’t His fault, because He gave us free will. If everyone did what he wanted, everyone would be saved.
- “The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.” (Psalm 19:9b) A judgment is a judge’s decision: “Here’s the law; here’s how it applies in your case; and therefore you are guilty” / innocent / whatever… As one who cannot lie, we can trust his decisions to be right in every situation. If you give your whole salary this month to the Lord and say, “If I give You this, I want this job”, or an Audi, or whatever, it will not sway Him. He cannot be bribed or coerced.
This is the end of the list of the attributes of God’s pronouncements, but then the Psalmist has a few more things to say about all of these things:
- In Psalm 19:10 he is saying, “All these things that I just told you are really awesome are more desirable than gold.” People want gold, because with it they can get what they want do what they want, and look better than other people. God says “What I have is even more valuable than that; not for selfish reasons, but they are more valuable to you and for your future and your destiny than all the gold and the world is for your desires.”
And they are sweet; it is not as if when you acquire these things you’ll have a miserable life. You read them and say “Oh my God, how can I ever do that? I can’t follow all of that!” But He says as you do, you’ll find that it’s sweet.
Sometimes God tells us to do something, and we say, “No way!” There was this guy named Jonah: “I want you to go to Nineveh, Jonah.” That was a commandment; and Jonah said “No!” and headed off to Tarshish, and you know how well that went: the ship was in a storm, they tossed him overboard and he was swallowed by a fish. Then he went and did what God told him to do: “Tell them that if they don’t repent, I’m going to destroy their city”. Guess what: they listened to him and they did it; and Jonah was angry! He gave lip service to God: “I know what You’re going to do: You’re going to look stupid. I’m going to tell them that all these bad things will happen to them, and they’ll repent, and You’ll forgive them, and I’ll be standing there with egg on my face as if I lied.” If he’d got with the programme, with why God sent him to Nineveh… In fact at the end God tells him what was going on, but unfortunately we don’t get Jonah’s response, so we don’t know if it convinces him (see Jonah 4:11).
It’s sweet if you do what God asks you to do. When I get to heaven, I want to be there when Jonah talks to the people of Nineveh and they hug him and they thank him for saving their lives and their souls: I think he’ll have a different opinion.
- Read Psalm 19:11. A warning is like a sign that says, “Don’t keep going: it won’t be good! Don’t do that!” They keep us from going astray – if we heed them. All the flashing billboards in the world won’t stop us if we don’t heed them. But again we can learn by our mistakes. If we heed them and keep them, we will then receive the greatest reward of all: not just an awesome, sweet life here – not by the world’s standards: I’m not talking about money – but also an awesome eternity with Him.
We can’t do it, but…
OK, you’ve convinced me: these things are wonderful – but I still haven’t got a chance in Hades’ hotspots of keeping them all; I can’t do it. Impossible; forget it. Satan says, “You know you can’t do it: you can’t even get up out of bed, go downstairs and eat breakfast for ten minutes without bad thoughts, cursing the toothpaste, cursing your boss…” It doesn’t take long before we fall. So how do we do this? And that’s just the Old Testament; in the New Testament, Jesus piles it on… Paul says of God that those “whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29)… Wait a minute! This is the Son who went to Jerusalem, was arrested, was spit on, was whipped, wore the crown of thorns, and was crucified – I’m supposed to be conformed to… What, are you joking? And I thought the commandments were bad! No way! That’s impossible!” That’s exactly what Satan wants you to think: “That’s impossible! Give it up; forget it. ‘Eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die.’ (I Corinthians 15:32)…”
But Jesus has the last word: read Matthew 18:2-3. It’s impossible the way you are: you can’t keep the Law, you can’t be conformed to the image of Christ; you can’t do it. Read Matthew 18:4. How does that help? We are to become like little children. Here is a trick question: What do children spend most of their waking time doing? Whatever they are doing, when they are playing games, watching TV, talking to you, or reading, they are gaining information: they are learning. Read Galatians 3:24-25: we learn from our mistakes, we learn from the Law, we keep getting input; and as long as we keep on getting up every time we fall, we are making progress: we only stop making progress when we don’t get up. We don’t lose until we quit; if we don’t quit, we don’t lose.
But what’s this about becoming like a little child, and we’re no longer under a tutor? Under the Old Testament, they only had the Law: all they could do was try to do the right thing, stumble, get up, learn from your mistake, and go on. God the Father knew that was not enough: you can’t learn enough even to do it right most of the time, much less all the time. So He sent His Son Jesus Christ in the flesh to become one of us…
- To show us the way: This is how you do it. That’s fine, but I still can’t. I have a much clearer picture now, because I have Jesus’ life. Even the disciples who walked with Him for three years still couldn’t do it right. Peter – “I don’t know the man!” – Peter, how can you deny Him? You’ve been one of His best friends for three years and you said you would die for Him, and now this servant girl says, “Do you know Him?” – “Who? I’ve never seen Him before in my life!” Way to go, Peter, man of faith and power! Living with Jesus for three years didn’t make Peter able to do it.
- But Jesus didn’t come just to show the way: He came to pay the price for all the mistakes, all the sins that we’d committed, to erase the slate every time we fall down and get back up – every time.
- Not only that, but then when He ascended to the Father, He said, “I will ask the Father and He will send you the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. You won’t have Me walking beside you any more, but you’re getting a great deal: God the Holy Spirit will be living inside you, showing you the way from inside, and making it possible for you to do all that I’ve asked – even to be conformed to My image.”
And it works. You don’t believe it? Look up to the video of the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded a week or so ago. What were their last words? ISIS thinks that showing you that video will intimidate the hell out of you; but it will inspire you. It’s possible to be conformed to the image of Jesus if we let the Holy Spirit take over. If we keep Him in the back seat and just listen to His instructions and sometimes do them and sometimes not, that won’t get us there; but if we humble ourselves – “OK, I’m getting out of the driver’s seat.” God is not my Co-pilot – God is my Driver. God is in the driving seat, and He’s driving: “Wherever You want to go, just do it. And just hang onto me, because I may try to leap out; hang onto me, keep me in” – the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to do.
We’ve received the Holy Spirit; does that mean that from now on I’m perfect? Definitely not: I still make mistakes; I still sin. Sometimes I don’t have the strength to get up, but I have the Holy Spirit and He picks me up and dusts me off. I go to Confession and the blood of Jesus washes me and I’m white again. The Holy Spirit says, “OK, back to the car, let’s go”; and we keep going. You can do that too.
Paul confirms this in Philippians 3:12-14; he’s talking about doing the right thing. (“I haven’t apprehended it” means “I haven’t grabbed it, I don’t have my hands on it yet”.) The key to this is Jesus’ instruction on becoming like a little child. As soon as I say, “That was just a little sin; I don’t need to worry about that”, the next one is a little bigger, but I don’t need to worry about either; and pretty soon I’m carrying this whole chain of sins behind me that I’m ignoring. That is not what Paul is talking about when he says “I forget the things that are behind”. The only way you can forget those is to bring them out of the dark, put them on the altar, and say, “I did that, and I’m sorry I did that, and I don’t want to do it again. Help me!” He forgives me, and now they’re forgotten. They’re not just forgotten by me: God says, “I’ve put them as far away from you as the east is from the west” (How far is that? Head east, and tell me when you get to the west – you’ll never get there), putting our sins in a place where our sins cannot torment us, where they cannot drag us down. Satan cannot use them to tell us, “You can’t do it. There’s no way. Just look at yesterday. Yesterday proved that you can’t do it.” There’s nothing there from yesterday: they’re as far as the east is from the west; this is a new day.
There is only one place like that, and that’s the mercy seat of Christ, covered by His blood; and there’s only one way to get them there: read James 4:6-10 (verse 8 speaks of confession). He will lift you up – not you, not me. That’s what Lent, this purple season, is all about: saying, “You’re right: I can’t do it, no way, unless You help me, unless You live in me.” Psalm 119:35 says, “Make me go in the way of Your commandments, because that is my delight.” “God, there will be times when I do not want to go Your way, but I’m taking this opportunity right now that when that situation comes up and I tell You I don’t want to do that, don’t listen to Me – I’m lying. My real heart is to follow You, and it’s just the situation that makes me want to run. Make me stand. I give You permission to overrule my will, because my real will is to follow You. Do it, please!” And He will lift you up.
In this Lent, as the world is trying to drive you down the motorway at 110 miles per hour and there’s traffic all around you (and I’m talking spiritually, not physically on the highway), slow down, get out of the fast lane, pull into the lay by, turn off the engine, get out of the car, walk out into the meadow, sit down and listen to God. Spend time with the one Being in all the universe who knows you most and loves you best. Confess, rend your hearts and not your garments, confess the things you know, confess… “God, I know that there are a lot of things that I don’t even notice, or that I do notice and my mind suppresses because I can’t handle thinking about them. I confess those things too; cleanse me of those.” And let Him wash you clean, pick you up, and set you back on the path. Because His heart for us is to succeed – not the world’s success; His success, according to His judgments and His precepts and His commandments and His Law – and there is nothing that’s sweeter than that, I guarantee it.
Let not your heart be troubled: go to Him, be with Him, confess to Him, and receive from Him; and rise up; and Easter will be different than it’s ever been for you before.